Recently I had the good fortune of conversing with the amazing Cecily Nicholson about her poetry and activism.
Her first poetry book, Triage, was published by Talonbooks in April 2011. Triage is a thick, engaging, formally innovative book that does a whole lot at once: it slides between worlds, engages in critique, challenges the self-appointed arbiter role of the mass media, celebrates solidarity. All the while it thrums with the political, exploding the all-too-common dichotomy of activism and aesthetics.
Cecily has worked with women of the downtown eastside community of Vancouver, Canada since 2000 and is currently a coordinator of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. She participates in the VIVO Media Arts Centre as an organizer with their Safe Assembly project, 2010 and the Imminent Future series, 2011. As a writer and poet Cecily works in collaboration with the Press Release Poetry Collective, formed in anticipation of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. This summer she is teaching at the Purple Thistle community centre’s Summer Institute and collaborating on the upcoming AK Press publication: A Radical Handbook for Youth.
In my last post I wrote about poets’ involvement in activism around the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. One poet who was active during the Olympics moment was Mercedes Eng.
Mercedes Eng explores racialized oppression — locally, on the West Coast, nationally, and internationally — and how this oppression is underpinned by colonizing language and racist representation. Her first chapbook, February 2010, is a poem set in the context of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and is a thinking through and responding to the media and advertising, censorship, art, nationalism, diversity of tactics, and First Nations land rights. Her second chapbook, knuckle sandwich, juxtaposes text from local mainstream media coverage of the missing and murdered women of Vancouver with reportage of the Canadian “liberation” of women in Afghanistan in order to explore state violence against racialized women. She works collaboratively with Press Release and Standard Ink & Copy Press poetry collectives. A current creative project considers her lived experience with sex-work in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, using non-standard English to explore and to resist the ways in which victimhood is constructed.
Jules most recently wrote about poetry, dissent, and the Olympics, and in this capacity, the late South African poet Dennis Brutus was legendary. Despite the fact Brutus said he was “never a good athlete,” he turned to sports as a focus for his activism (“I was reasonably good at organizing,” he explained), and began organizing sports competitions in the 1940s at the high school where he taught (Brutus 38). Through his affiliation with a number of anti-apartheid activists, he homed in on the Olympics with his sports-organizing talents, finding a contradiction between the Olympic charter (which forbade racial discrimination by participating countries) and the apartheid government of South Africa.
As a youngster I had unequivocally positive feelings about the Olympics. In part this was because I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin where winter sports were bigger than Jesus. During the 1980 Winter Olympics, which took place in Lake Placid, New York, I cheered mightily for fellow Madisonian Eric Heiden as he won five gold medals in speed skating, yelping at the tv screen as he swirled elegantly around the rink. This brought the poet out of ABC’s Keith Jackson who later described him as “a spring breeze off the top of the Rockies.” My parents even got me a stylish Eric-Heiden-esque rainbow hat, which I wore with great pride. (Later I attended Madison West High School where Heiden also went). That same Olympics the US hockey team won the so-called “miracle on ice.” The moment the hockey team won the gold-medal game is etched in the chalk and bones of my then-10-year-old mind. I remember the unbridled exhilaration pumping through my little body.
In his book Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry, Ian Davidson has written that in terms of poets’ response to the “spatial turn” he believes, “The most satisfying responses to spatialization and globalization are from those poets who engage with those processes through both the content of their work and through experimentations in poetic form” (p. 27). One poet whose “experimentations in poetic form” I’ve found consistently thought-provoking is Portland, Oregon-based poet Jared Hayes.
JB: In the mesostic poems posted below how does your methodology emerge in terms of both form and content?